The First English Settlers: Sutanuti Sahibs, 1690 – 1706

View of Calcutta from Hooghly River by William Hodges. c1789

View of Calcutta from Hooghly River by William Hodges. c1789

সুতানুটির সাহেব; ইংরেজ পত্তনির প্রথম ষোল বছর, ১৬৯০- ১৭০৬

Charnock was the main instrument that worked behind the foundation of the British Empire in the East. He felt that Sutanuti was a strategic position and had many advantages for the English that the other places lacked. Provisions were plentiful at its bazaars and hats, Communication by land routs with interior was easier, yet the village was an island that could be cheaply defended. It was a secure position for a naval power. A suitable landing Ghat was already there. Just below the place, the river Hooghly had become deep enough for large ship to ride in. There existed a pucca building which might be used for factors, in case of need. The place, being marshy and unhealthy, had no much value in the eyes of the Moghul. Articles of export could also be had, as a trading community, such as the Setts and Byasacks, had already actively engaged in business there.

bazar india

Cloth merchant measuring cloth. Artist Unknown. 1820

Before acquisition of Calcutta the Savarnas were traditionally the proprietors of Calcutta and its adjacent areas. The Byasaks and Setts came there to settle as the earliest dwellers. After the name of their idol Chitreswari, they called their locality on the north of Calcutta as ‘Chitpur’. After their family deity Govida, the Bysaks named their village Govindapur. Among the Hindu residents of the time in Calcutta and its neighbouring village we find mentions in the traditions of Monohar Ghose, an ancestor of Dewan Shrihari Ghose, at Chitpur; of a predecessor of Govinda Mitter, who acted as a Black Zamindar under Holwell at Sutanuti; of Govina Saran Dutt and Panchanan Tagore, ancestors of Dutts and the Tagores of Hatkhola and Pathuriaghata, respectively settled at Chttanuttee and Govindapur”

Black (Gentoo) Pagoda, Chitpore-Daniel

Gentoo Pagoda and House – Thomas Daniel. c 1787

Due to the diversion of the trade of Satgaon, cities and villages rapidly grew up along its banks. The situation helped the villages Sutanuti, Govindapur and Kolikata to grow into prominence together with some newly come up villages, namely Chitrapur (Chitpur) on their north, and Bhowanipur and Kalighat on their South. Govindapur and Kalighat were separated by a creek marking the northern edge of the old Adi-Ganga that connected the Hooghly and the Balurghata and the Salt-water Lakes. Shortly after, a place for the sale of cloth was set up further north that became famous as Sutnati Hat, the Cotton Bale Market, In the 17th century, Betor gradually washed out and its foreign trading were shifted to Sutanuti where new connections with European traders, particularly the English, are being fostered.
“On 24th August 1690 for the third and last time Charnock found himself at Chuttanutte (sic), where ‘the restored merchants were received with respact.’ This was the foundation day of the City of Palaces.” – Hyde Parochial annals of Bangal. Charnock’s Sutanuti was considered the best choice for business prospect, but worst for the settlers. Three miles to the north-eastward was a salt-water lake that overflows in September -October, then prodigious numbers of fish resort thither, but in November –December, when the floods are dissipated, those fishes left dry, and with their putrefaction affect the air with stinking vapors, and cause a yearly mortality.

View of Circular Road, Calcutta- Prinsep, Edward Augustus 1848

Circular Road Calcutta, by Edward Prinsep. 1848

Procession of the Goddess Kali - Calcutta October 1841

Procession of the Goddess, L.H. de Rudder 1848

Charnock died in 1693 leaving the new settlement in chaos. During last days Charnock lived like a spent-force landlord, allowing everyone the liberty to enclose lands, dig tanks, and build houses where and how they pleased. The settlement remained unfortified and vulnerable even ten years after his death. In 1696 during insurgence of Subah Singh, the English obtained the much delayed permission to defend themselves.

North view of the Water Gate and Royal Barracks at Fort William in Calcutta by William Baillie . 1794

A bastion and a walled enclosure were completed by January 1697. The Company has by the year 1699 sufficiently secured their position in Bengal and elevated to the rank of independent Presidency. Supposedly, by this time the supply of the ten guns ordered for did arrive from Madras. Next year their rising fort was granted the name ‘Fort William’ a tribute to the reigning King. The construction of the Fort took some 16 years more to complete. It was, as the Court of Directors observed in 1713 , of very little real use as fortification. See CR Wilson/ Old Fort William

The first English settlement at Sutanuti ‘seems to have consisted of mud and straw hovels’. Its chief defence was the flotilla of boats lying in the river, The renewed settlement established by Charnock in 1690 was of the same nature. Except a small area round the Park and the Factory, there had been no township grown in the settlement during early days of British occupancy. The only noticeable masonry building Charnock acquired was the Catchari of Sutanuti jaigirdars. With the construction of the Fort at its site and reclamation of the great tank, the Portuguese and Armenian together with few Dutch and Danes flocked around the Fort.

Chitpore Road Calcutta, by Simpson William. 1867

The huge area of its neighboring marketplace, Burrah Bazaar, had every available space within its boundaries taken up by houses and shops of the native traders. The Bazaar was accessible by a road east of the Fort and west of the Park that ran northwards, and one of its branches passed through Algodam (potato godown). There was also the old zamindari avenue leading eastwards that crossed the junction of Broad Street and Chitpur Road – Calcutta’s earliest thoroughfare. Along these waysides, the affluent Company merchants and opulent native traders happily started settling in garden houses. Omichand, the Sikh millionaire had his mansion on the north of the Tank Square. Rasbehari Sett and Ramkissen Sett had theirs on the west of the Burying Ground. Near Middle Street the Company had its own vegetable garden and fish ponds. The Company’s factors and writers still resided in ‘convenient lodgings inside Fort.

In 1706, only 2248 bighas of land occupied with dwellings in Town Calcutta, and 364 bighas were shortly to utilized for houses, although the Burrahbazar to its immediate north was already most populous, having 400 bighas built over out of its entire area of 488 bighas. The land actually held by the English at Calcutta at this time was about three miles in length and about a mile in breath, its inland boundary being the Chitpore road, which afforded access to the famous Kalighat temple.  This immemorial pilgrim path disguised today under such various names as Chitpore Road, Cossaitollah Gully (or Bentink Street) and Chowringhee Road.

EsplanadeRow-River-CouncilHouse-x

Esplanade Row from the river to the Council House, Etching by William Baillie. 1794

 

In spite of the increasing effort being made for suburbanization the settlement stll reeking with malaria. Mortality was extraordinarily high. Out of the twelve hundred Englishmen no less than 460 died within five months as Hamilton reported in 1710. Till August 1705 there was only one doctor to attend and until the autumn of 1707 there was no hospital in town Calcutta. It was ‘a pretty good hospital in Calcutta’ where many go in to undergo the grievance of physic, but few come out to give accounts of its operation. Braving such a challenging situations the Englishmen built their home away from home and did their best to live in their own style.

As Calcutta became settled with its fort, quarters, parks, roads, bazaar and other amenities, Sutanuti became abandoned by the English as a place of abode. They left behind their favourite Perrin’s pleasure garden, ‘where once it was the height of gentility for the Company’s covenanted servants to take their wives for an evening stroll or moonlight féte. Bellamy lived to see a gunpowder factory in the grounds. As he rode out to Perrin’s besides his wife’s palanquin, along what is now Clive Street, he would have marked how between the new stockaded Christian town and citadel and the old defenseless village of the cotton market lay the gardens, orchards, and houses of the thriving native middlemen to whom English methods of trade then, and revenue administration later, gave so ample scope of fortune-making.’

The English Company boys, who landed at Sutanuti accompanying Charnock, were evidently differently motivated people than the factors and writers arrived decade after. The first generation settlers were a band of adventurist traders, with little or no education and no high ambition in life. Who knows, they might have preferred to continue in Sutanuti rather than to live in town Calcutta alienated from the rest.

Job_Charnock_founding_Calcutta,_1690-2

Job Charnock Founding Calcutta. Illustrator unknown. Source: Hutchinson’s story of the nations

In that wee hours, none of them, neither their Company nor the Royal authority, had an inkling of the future role of the English in India. It was, however, not unlikely that the idea of a permanent English settlement first came to Charnock’s mind when Sutanuti was the ‘halfway house of the European merchants’. He had a speculative flair. As the time-honoured legend goes, he used to sit and smoke a meditative hookah under the shade of the famous peepul tree where Bow Bazaar Street meets Lower Circular Road. The tree is no more there. It was uprooted unceremoniously during Marquees Hastings’ regime, in 1820, leaving behind a memory of the tree hidden in the new street name, Baithakkhana Road. Charnock nevertheless, could not have taken his ideas further because of his growing indifference and lack of initiative, as discussed before. History took its own course. Calcutta suburbanization eventually made Calcutta the second-best city of the British Empire. The first English settlers, the Sutanuti sahibs, were lost by this time in oblivion.

 

SOURCEBOOKS

The book ‘Calcutta, town and suburb’ has been extensively used besides few other sources.

 

Calcutta Armenians, Calcutta, c1660

S.S._Catherine_Apcar_c._1900

কলকাতা আর্মানীসমাজ, কলকাতা, c১৬৬০-

The Armenians had trading relations with India from ancient time, and known as the “Merchant Princes of India”. Initially they settled in Emperor Akbar’s court. Some came to Serampore and Calcutta to settle there, supposedly under the invitation of Job Charnock. The recently deciphered inscription on Rezabeebeh’s tomb in the Church of Nazareth, upsets the accepted chronicle of British settlement in Calcutta. The text reveals that Rezabeebeh, wife of the late ‘Charitable Sookias’ had lived in Calcutta until she died on July 11, 1630 – about 60 years before Charnock settled.

The Armenians were among the first trading communities of Calcutta. The city still bears the footprints of the vibrant community thrived in her soil. There exists a locality in Barabazaar named Armanitola where the Armenians stayed initially, and nearby a street that bears the name Armenian Street. The Armenians had also populated an area close to Free School Street, called Armani-para, or the neighbourhood of Armenians. Armenians concentrated first in North Calcutta areas, and when the area became crowded, they moved to the Central Calcutta and thereafter toward South Calcutta where they owned almost whole of Queen’s Park and Sunny Park.ArmeniansOfCalcutta1909

The Armenian community of Calcutta might be divided into three classes in the chronological order. The Armenians, who were direct descendents of the original settlers, distinguished themselves with their upbringing in a unique socio-cultural environment of the birth place of Bengal Renaissance, backed by English Education. This millue of Armenians differed from their forefathers and from all other contemporary Armenians primarily in respect of their choice of professions. These Armenians were Calcuttans in a sense, and may be categorized as ‘Calcutta Armenians’. Then there was a large group of Armenians came from Julfa to stay in Calcutta during the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. These Julfa Armenians, with a traditional mind-set, engaged themselves in trade and commerce activities. Besides the ‘Calcutta Armenians’, and the Julfa Armenians’, there was ‘Charmahalis’ the third group of Armenians in Calcutta. Charmahalis, a clannish and ambitious lot, emigrated from the Armenian villages of Charmahal during early 20th century. At first the Armenian colonies were not very big. As found in the records of the Colonial Office the number of Armrnians in Calcutta is 464 in 1814, 480 in 1815, 505 in 1836, and 777 in 1901 Census. See Montgomery Martin. Statistics of the Colonies

The Calcutta Armenians were usually bracketed with Anglo-Indians because of their similarity in respect of their fair complexion, spoken English, European lifestyle, and their personal names that sound alike. The Armenian surnames had generally an ending ‘ian’ or ‘yan’. The Calcutta Armenians shortened or modified their names as for example, Khojamalian became Khojamall, Grigoryan became Gregory, Abgaryan became Apcar. As for the first names, men and women liberally used European versions of their names. ‘It is worth mentioning that Indian surnames as Seth, Vardhan, Kochhar, Narayan, Nair, and Gauhar have an Armenian origin…’ See: Armanians in Calcutta/ Susmita Bhattacharya, 2009

With time, the social structure of the Armenian community changed. A purely mercantile community at the beginning, they took opportunities for diversifying their enterprises and became owners of merchant ships, collieries, real estates, racehorses, jewelries, and the kind of business. Their successful ventures in money making and their philanthropic contributions made them important members of the Calcutta society. The lifestyle of the Calcutta Armenians of later generations changed enough to accept new professions to become noted scholars, doctors, lawyers, architects. In their construction business, Armenians set a high standard for private and public buildings. They built hundreds of residential houses, public buildings, mansions and palaces all over Calcutta. It was the Armenian architects who took leading part in converting Calcutta into a ‘city of palaces’, where they built every other landmark buildings, like Park Mansion, Queen’s Mansion, Harrington Mansion, Nizam Palace, Grand Hotel, and many others. Armenians also built unique churches, educational institutions, ferry ghats and bathing ghats and excavated tanks as well.

The Armenian Church of the Holy Nazareth, an Armenian Apostolic church is located in the northwest corner of Barabazar, and is called “Mother Church of the Indian Armenians”. It is possibly the oldest church in the Calcutta built in 1724 on the burial ground of the community by Agha Nazar after a fire destroyed the previous Armenian church that had been built on the land in 1688.armenian-nazareth--church The Holy Nazareth structure is one of three Armenian churches in Calcutta; the other two are Saint Mary’s Church and the church of Saint Gregory the Illuminator.

The most significant gift of the Armenians to the city was the Armani-ghat, or, Armenian Ghat that stood on the river bank till recently with its beautiful structure, reminding their socio-economic relationship with the city life. The Ghat was constructed in 1734, on river edge adjacent to the old Howrah Bridge, by Manvel Hazarmall, better known locally as Huzoorimal, to facilitate shipment of goods from foreign shores. This was where the Eastern Railways, during 1854 – 1874, had their ‘Calcutta Station and Ticket Reservation Room’ for the passengers to buy train tickets and cross the Ganges on Railway owned steamers/ launches to board their train from platform at Howrah. Manvel Hazarmall also gave away several bighas of land at Kalighat where he constructed a pucka ghat near the temple, and excavated a large tank at Boitakkhana which went by his name till filled up. A street, Huzurimal Lane, named after him still exists in Nebutala area.

Personal details of Manvel Hazarmall are little known, besides that Aga Hazarmall Satoor was his father’s name, and that Manvel was wealthy and influential nobleman friend and subsequently executor of Omichand, the wealthiest native resident of the town in his day. The other fact we came to know was that the beautiful belfry serving as a clock-tower of the Nazareth Church, was built in 1734 by Mavel Hazarmall, following the wish of his father, Aga Hazarmall Satoor died the same year and buried there.

Among those Armenian families settled in Calcutta immediate after Hazarmalls, the most reputable was the Apcars, originally from New Julfa. Aratoon Apcar was the first Apcar settled in India, He landed to Bombay as a boy of sixteen, founded there Apcar & Co. and in1830 moved to Calcutta where he made his fortune. Arratoon’s second son, Seth Apcar was the first Armenian Sheriff of Kolkata. The youngest son, Alexander Apcar was the Consul for Siam. Alexander’s son, Apcar Alexander Apcar, a keen cricketer, was president of the Calcutta Turf Club, and the Bengal Chamber of Commerce. Arratoon Apcar’s younger brother, Gregory Apcar was noted for his charitable work, particularly to the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Armenian College, which was founded by another noble Armenian, Asvatoor Mooradkhan in 1821.

The same year The Armenian Philanthropic Academy was founded seemingly by Arratoon Apcar and others at 358 Old China Bazar Street, with a mission to educate children in the language and faith of their forefathers, without which their ethnicity could not have been so faithfully preserved in the land of their adoption. See: Seth.Armenians in India,1937

The painting featured at the top is a portrait of the ship, ‘S.S. Catherine Apcar’ – an oil on canvas by a late 19th Century School of oil painter, apparently unsigned. c1893. It was a passenger vessel, built in 1892 by D & W Henderson Ltd Glasgow for Apcar Brothers Calcutta, who was the owner until 1912 when BI Company bought it. The vessel was scrapped in 1929.